“Seinfeld” in the cancellation crosshairs

November 15, 2021 • 11:15 am

I’ve subscribed to The Righting, a daily news summary of right-wing articles compiled by leftists. Perhaps that explains why the daily list of links shows how bull-goose loony much of the Right is, even when the articles come from the more respectable right-wing sites, like the National Review.  The articles are hilarious in their denunciations of the Left (they are of course anti-vax and hate Biden), but even a blind pig can find an acorn—an acorn which you’d only find on conservative sites. One of these is their singling out of egregious wokeness.

This one, from of all places a right-wing entertainment site (Hollywood in Toto: “The Right Take on Entertainment”), describes the attacks on the television comedy “Seinfeld” for being racist, sexist, able-ist, and so on. The article links to a lot of criticism of the show.

Now I never watched “Seinfeld” much; for some reason the fact that nothing ever happened on the show bored me, but there were some episodes I found hilarious, like “The Chicken Roaster,” in which Kramer gets hooked on Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, a chicken takeout across the street from their apartment. But its flashing sign, which makes Kramer’s apartment into a nightmare of disco proportions drives him nuts. And the funniest episode I ever saw was the famous “Soup Nazi” one, based on a real soup-vending curmudgeon in New York City.

I never paid much attention to the show’s lack of “political correctness”, as it was called at the time, but now people are sniffing out infelicities in very old t.v. shows and calling them out. Back then, for instance, “Soup Nazi” was inoffensive; now it would be an insult to all brash people, or seen as a diminution of Nazism. That trend is what the article below is about (click on screenshot to read).

An excerpt:

It’s only one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, a comedy that sparks new fans whenever it shifts to a fresh platform. It did it again earlier this year when Netflix began airing the show’s nine sublime seasons.

And, for at least six years, the woke mob has insisted we shouldn’t laugh along with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.

Take this 2015 article, which declares one of TV’s supreme sitcoms is now too “racist” and “sexist” to enjoy. The article sprang to life after Seinfeld admitted he’d never play a college gig because students are too easily offended.

If you stick a thumb in the woke mob’s eye they quickly retaliate.

Still, the article didn’t inspire a movement. Nor did subsequent pieces hammering similar themes. The far-Left Bustle attacked singular jokes from the classic show, 13 in total, as being offensive with its 2018 screed.

The trend continued in 2020, with Cheat Sheet bemoaning that Seinfeld refused to apologize for the show’s jokes. The woke mob loves apologies. They’re rarely accepted, of course.

The Hostage Apology is akin to Struggle Session lite.

The far-left Screen Rant decided, apparently, that 2021 is the year to kickstart “Seinfeld’s” cancelation. Back in May the site ran an op-ed taking down George for his problematic behavior.

His antics “haven’t aged well,” we’re told. Screen Rant wants every character in a sitcom to behave like a gentleman, thus negating all of George’s broad comic tics.

Looper attempted its own cancellation essay this year, all the while admitting how foolish such a measure is.

Sure, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer — and on a meta level, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and everyone else behind the “Seinfeld” scenes — would undoubtedly laugh at the notion of an article like this, offering a snarky remark and a reminder that the best humor (and an invaluable life necessity) comes from laughing at things society takes seriously. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dispute — these “Seinfeld” moments have not aged well.

Screen Rant’s latest broadside against “Seinfeld?” Seinfeld: 10 Things About Jerry That Have Aged Poorly

You can read the articles (I’ll put three examples below from the Screen Rant article and three from another piece), but it was my impression that Seinfeld’s comedy was meant to be edgy by taking on topics and reactions that people often have, but keep to themselves. In other words, it airs publicly what people are thinking privately, but were allowed to air in the private group of Jerry’s friends. Three examples from Screen Rant.

Three examples from the Bustle article, “These 13 jokes from ‘Seinfeld’ are actually super offensive“:

Well, I didn’t think they’d find this episode “super-offensive”, but I was wrong.

I don’t find what’s below particularly racist, for some men are attracted to Asian women. Others are attracted to black women, or to Hispanic women. I’ve never heard this as characterized as “saying you like everyone in a race”. Rather, what some men find attractive are the features of women from some ethnic group, and not all women or all people.

This isn’t “racist” unless somehow you stereotype the women by expecting them to all behave in a defined and similar way.  But the relationships I know of involving white men and nonwhite women have all been pretty much like intra-racial relationships, with the same affection and closeness. The women are, after all, human beings.

Many of the ten jokes and incidents from the Bustle article, as I said, deal with people’s feelings that they’re not comfortable making public except to one’s very good friends. In other words, they highlight life as it is, warts and all. No character on Seinfeld is portrayed as a saint: they all have their flaws, obsessions, and biases.

This kind of humor was the metier of people like Lenny Bruce, and now of Dave Chappelle, but it doesn’t play well with the Woke. As we know from Titania McGrath—whose sarcastic tweets get mistaken for genuinely “progressive’ views”—one characteristic of Wokeness is that it lacks a sense of humor.

Seinfeld and other comedians have said that they’ll no longer do standup at colleges and universities, and it’s not hard to see why. Here’s Seinfeld on “political correctness”.


“The Chair”: A miniseries about academia

September 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Matthew was recently watching the new Netflix series “The Chair“, whose first season comprises six 30-minute episodes.  It’s basically “ER” set in a college—the fictional Pembroke University in New England.

Sandra Oh—the one character who’s very well acted plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chair of Pembroke’s English department, and has to face the usual travails of a chair: how to choose a distinguished speaker, dealing with faculty who don’t teach well, schmoozing the dean, listening to a colleague kvetch about poor office space, and so on. The plot is complicated by the fact that her ex-husband (Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass) is a professor in her department, is acting erratically since his second wife died, and he wants to reunite with Kim.

They’ve inserted some woke stuff to create drama, the main trope being Dobson’s quick Hitler salute when he mentions Hitler in a class. That, of course sets off a huge fracas.

I’ve watched the first three episodes (I guess there will be a second season), and I’ve pretty much had it. While Oh’s acting is good, much of the other actors overdo it, and the drama—sustaining a Hitler salute over the entire series (don’t read the Wikipedia summary if you want to watch it), is boring. I’m giving up. Matthew thought it was okay, but he’s recommended that I watch “The Wire” instead, and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a much bigger investment—60 one-hour episodes—but it’s received universal critical acclaim.

In the meantime, you can see the official trailer for the “The Chair” below:


Sullivan on Maher on wokeness

August 21, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Reader Paul sent me a 5-minute segment of Andrew Sullivan’s appearance on Bill Maher’s show last night, adding these comments:

He was the initial one-on-one interviewee and they mostly talked about Wokeism. Maher pointed out that this was Sullivan’s 27th appearance on the show, the most of any guest.

In the group discussion part of the show, Maher’s anti-vaxish opinion reared its ugly head. He mentions that he’s vaccinated and “did it for the team”, hinting that he wouldn’t have taken it otherwise. Then he says he won’t be getting the booster. One of the guests was someone who consulted on COVID matters for the US military. I was happy that he pushed back hard against Maher and that Maher seemed to indicate that he was on thin ice. I suspect that Maher’s going to get an earful on Twitter today.

In the short segment, Maher heaps praise on Sullivan for his common sense, noting that their perspectives generally agree. They then discuss Andrew’s move to Substack, and Andrew admits (I don’t remember this from before) that he was indeed fired from New York Magazine (I think it was because Sullivan was going to criticize the violence and looting of some of the Black Lives Matter protestors). Andrew’s own criticism of the pro-woke mindset of magazines (including all that have “New York” in the title) is pretty good.

Here’s part of Maher’s monologue, largely about the downside of smartphone. Well, they certainly have made people nastier as well as reduced the reading of books as well as people’s attention span in general.

Sarah Silverman hosts Jimmy Kimmel’s show, disses podcasting

August 19, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Reader Enrico told me that Sarah Silverman hosted Jimmy Kimmel’s show twice this week (they used to be a couple).  Even though I’m no longer as smitten with Sarah after I discovered that she endorses BDS, I still had to watch the four clips on YouTube. Here’s one of them.

The one below was fairly good, though I thought the segment with Louis Virtel was pretty weak and not funny at all. But I greatly enjoyed “the greatest plague facing our nation,” which turns out to be PODCASTING. It begins at 8:20. (Siverman does, by the way, have her own podcast!)

It does seem that everyone who used to write prose (with the exceptions of Dawkins and Pinker) has turned to podcasting, and, as you know, I can’t listen to them. They go on for hours, and yes, I know that some of them are absorbing. But the turn to podcasting has to reflect things like people’s increasing need to multitask rather than read (which you can’t do while cooking), itself perhaps a result of Internet-lowered attention span, and maybe to the fact that it’s simply easier to do a podcast, especially if it involves a conversation, than to write something substantive.

Sarah’s right: everybody’s getting into the game. Bari Weiss, for example, seems to have abandoned writing on her Substack site and gone to podcasting. The pieces on her site are all written by others. The result: I don’t get the chance to read her, and I don’t listen to her.  And if lots of good writers transition to podcasting, well, the quality of writing will go down.

But I still love Sarah—all Jewish boys do.

The other three videos of Sarah hosting for Kimmel are here, here, and here.

“Problematic” films to be reframed by Turner Classic Movies

March 7, 2021 • 10:00 am

The good news is that although the Pecksniffs at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have found 18 “problematic”—run when you see that word—movies made between 1920 and 1960, they’re not going to pull them. Rather, as the article from the LA Times below notes, they are going to “reframe them”. That means that they will tell you what parts of the movies are bad in advance. The bad news is that although some of these movies probably should come with a disclaimer, I think they’re overdoing it.

Click on the screenshot to read the article. If it’s paywalled, you can find the same information at other sites by Googling “TCM films”:

The contents:

Turner Classic Movies has decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to timeless but troublesome movies. The result is “Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror,” a new series that kicks off Thursday and runs throughout the month.

Along with screening 18 classics, TCM hosts will discuss what the network calls the “troubling and problematic” aspects of the much-loved flicks, which were released in the 1920s through the 1960s. “The goal is never to censor, but simply provide rich historical context to each classic,” the network said in a statement.

Among the problems: racism, sexism, portrayals of LGBTQ issues and more.

“We’re not saying this is how you should feel about ‘Psycho’ or this is how you should feel about ‘Gone With the Wind.’ We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to ‘I love this movie. I hate this movie.’ There’s so much space in between,” TCM host Jacqueline Stewart recently told the Associated Press.

Stewart and fellow hosts Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone and Eddie Muller will take turns participating in roundtable introductions that touch on the history and cultural context of the films. They will also prep new viewers about moments they might find upsetting.

“Our job is not to get up and say, ‘Here’s a movie that you should feel guilty about for liking,’” Mankiewicz told the Hollywood Reporter. “But to pretend that the racism in it is not painful and acute? No. I do not want to shy away from that. This was inevitable. And welcomed. And overdue.”

Below are all the movies that will be “Reframed” once a week through the end of this month, beginning each Thursday at 5 p.m. Pacific. This is one situation where it’s good to be a night owl or own a DVR, because the films run one after the other — and even overnight. [see below]

Here’s the video discussing the “problematic” content of the TCM films. Again, the video is quite good at defending the need to show these movies, and why (and it’s not just because we need to come to terms with the moral degradation of the past). I’ll put the list of the movies below, but you can get an idea of many of them from this 6-minute video: “Gone with the Wind,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “The Jazz Singer”, “Stagecoach”, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Curiously, three of the movies I recognize, “Rebel Without a Cause”, “No Way Out”, and “Lolita”, aren’t being shown by TCM, or at least aren’t on the list, but do appear in the video, implying that they need to be “reframed”. Perhaps that’s coming when they’re shown in the future.

Well, you know, I don’t have huge objections to this “framing”, but it still irks me a bit, and I’m not sure why. I recognize that there should be guidelines or content warnings, like “Note: racism, blackface, men hitting women, Native American being aggressive,” and so on. But beyond that, do we really need someone to tell us, and in detail, exactly why the movies are problematic? Why not put the discussions online so people can read them if they want to? Will there be any dissent among the discussants? I doubt it: they must convey a unified moral message.

I guess it seems a bit patronizing to me to have other people tell me why the movies are considered offensive.  The racism in the Sidney Poitier movie shown in the video above (“No Way Out,” curiously absent from the list given) is clearly meant to be an offensive display of bigotry, and do we really need to say, “When that guy spits in Poitier’s face, it’s racist”? The movie was intended to show racism in a negative light. That’s different from the “acceptable” racism in movies like “The Jazz Singer”.

Here’s the list of problematic movies; groups of them will be shown on a given night.  If you’ve seen some of these movies, you might want to guess what is “problematic” about them. I’ve put asterisks next to the ones I’ve guessed, and question marks next to ones that I’ve seen but can’t guess what’s problematic about them (granted, I haven’t seen some of these in years, and, given what I know about the Zeitgeist, I’m sure I could spot the bad bits upon rewatching).

March 4

  • “Gone With the Wind” *
  • “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” ?
  • “Rope”
  • “The Four Feathers”

March 11

  • “Woman of the Year” ?
  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” *
  • “Gunga Din” *
  • “Sinbad, the Sailor”
  • “The Jazz Singer” *

March 18

  • “The Searchers”
  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” [I read what is problematic; otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to guess]
  • “Swing Time”
  • “Stagecoach” [Ditto for Breakfast at Tiffay’s]
  • “Tarzan, the Ape Man” ?

March 25

  • “My Fair Lady” ?
  • “The Children’s Hour”
  • “Psycho” ?
  • “Dragon Seed”

And a note about other problematic films and television shows Entertainment:

Other networks and streamers are also finding ways to address these issues within their respective libraries. In June, HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind in response to criticism from 12 Years a Slave director John Ridley who said the multiple Academy Award-winning film “glorifies the antebellum south.” It was re-released that same month with a new introduction.

The recent debut of The Muppet Show on Disney+ also arrived with warnings on nearly two dozen episodes due to “negative depictions.”

TV shows are receiving the same treatment, multiple episodes of popular shows like The Golden GirlsThe Office, and30 Rockwere either edited or pulled completely.

Does anyone have any objections to what Turner is doing? Do you think the films need “framing” via a seemingly extensive discussion? If not, is there a better way to single out what’s “problematic”?

NBC’s invidious portrayal of Orthodox Jews

February 28, 2021 • 12:45 pm

I’m not going to get bent out of shape about this incident, or call for heads to roll at NBC, but I can say that if this kind of stereotyping—and erroneous stereotyping—occurred with Muslims, blacks, or Hispanics, fulsome apologies would be tendered and heads would roll. It’s apparently okay for Jews, though.

I’m not going to defend the silly religious beliefs of the Orthodox, or their extreme form of Haredi Judaism, for those tenets are just as mythological and unfounded as the beliefs of any other faith. But you’d think that the writers of television shows depicting religions would at least get the beliefs right. In this case it’s a Hasidic Jew and his father (Hasids are a subset of Haredi Jews).

The clip is from the NBC show Nurses, which I haven’t seen, and it involves an Orthodox boy whose leg has been hurt and who needs a bone graft to fully heal. If you’re a Hasid, as Allison Josephs is in her article below (from an Orthodox site called “Jew in the City”), you’ll cast a kitten:

Okay, what’s the problem? Allison explains it in the video and the article below that. I’ll show an excerpt (there are multiple gaffes):

But if you weren’t offended yet, buckle up, because then the show really gets nasty. Israel is told by the doctor that he’ll need a bone graft to fully heal. Israel doesn’t understand what this means, so the doctor explains that he’ll have to have part of a dead person’s bone surgically inserted into his leg.

Cue the horror! Israel and his father are distraught at the notion that he’ll have a dead person’s body part in his body and that it will be a “goyim”[Sic] part to boot! But even worse than that – it could be an “Arab” body part or an “lady” body part. Or as the nurse reminds them, “an Arab lady” body part. (See this disturbing clip in my video explanation below.)

Despite my invitation to Hollywood producers to consult us when they do their “token Hasidic Jew” episode, Hollywood insists on remaining ignorant and promoting lies about the Orthodox community. Let’s unpack how badly they did with this aforementioned scene:

  1. There is no prohibition on getting a dead body part surgically inserted into one’s body. In fact, Jewish law says we should use the best medicine of our times to recover from our illnesses.
  2. There is no prohibition to get a non-Jewish body part inserted, nor is there a prohibition if the part belongs to a woman or an Arab.

Now, are there Orthodox Jews who look down on non-Jews and Arabs? You betcha. And are there Orthodox Jews who are misogynists? Unfortunately, yes for that one too. But the idea that such a surgery would be problematic in general or problematic because of where the bone came from not only is categorically false according to Jewish law, it is a vicious lie that endangers men who walk around with curled side locks and black hats.

Read the article below, because there are a lot of other gaffes in this very short clip and in the show as a whole. Don’t they even know that “goyim” is plural of “goy” and if you want an adjective for a gentile body part, it’s “goyische”.  All I can say is “Oy, gewalt!”


I wanted to see if NBC actually did apologize—I didn’t expect it—so I Googled “NBC apology for Nurses clip”. I found an article that says that NBC has actually withdrawn the episode, apparently the season finale, from its platform:

After facing backlash from the social media users and Jewish organizations, NBC pulled the season finale from its digital platforms, according to a report by Deadline.

The scrutiny over the resurfaced Nurses clip comes after NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) also facing backlash for an anti-Semitic joke about Israel and coronavirus vaccines.

Guess which site that is? Breitbart! (No, I don’t read it; it came up on Google!). And nearly every other site that you get when you Google “NBC apology for Nurses clip” is conservative site like Fox News, Mediaite, or The Daily Mail. I tried the Washington Post, Huffpost (including their anti-Semitism section) and the New York Times specifically, and—no dice.

Is there a reason that the liberal media would ignore a distortion of Judaism this grotesque, but would feature it prominently if it involved the same finagling with African-Americans or Muslims? (“What, doctor: you want to put a PIG HEART VALVE in my son? No way!! Best leave him in the hands of Allah.”) Of course there is, and you know the answer.

Had I seen the show (I wouldn’t have) and had I known the grotesque distortions of belief involved (I didn’t), I would have kvetched a bit here, but my activism about mocking or distorting religion stops there. I’ll just point out the potential hypocrisy involved in this fracas being something that the right-wing but not left-wing media would highlight. It reminds me of an old joke, one that you won’t have heard:

A guy walks into a bar and notices a man talking to the bartender down at the other end. The guy does a doubletake because the man talking to the bartender really resembles Hitler.

So the guy goes up to the man and says “Excuse me, but did anybody ever tell you that you look like Hitler?”

The man says “Oh, but I am  Hitler. I have been reincarnated and I am back on Earth to kill 10 million Jews and 33 geese!”

“Oh, my God! That’s terrible! But why 33 geese?”

Hitler then turns to the bartender and says “See? I told you that nobody cares about the Jews.”

Oh, and let me note this at the end. Though some Haredi sects are opposed to organ donation after death, the Haredim are known for their willingness to be live donors, giving kidneys to other people, and not just other Jews. In fact, it’s more of a mitzvah if you don’t know who the recipient is. In Israel, the Haredim donate to everyone, including Israeli Arabs.  For verification, see Wikipedia, which has a reference to the U.S. data:

Haredi Jews have a high rate of live organ donations. In 2014, 17% of all live kidney donations to strangers in the United States were donated by Haredi Jews, even though they are only 0.2% of the US population.[8] Other studies of other live organ donations in the US and Israel show similarly high donation rates for a variety of organs.[citation needed]

“The Duckling Professor”

May 12, 2020 • 11:15 am

On Sunday, the local ABC News ran a story about the pond, the ducks, and yours truly. You can see the 3.5-minute video (and a transcript) of the piece below, shot and reported by ABC correspondent Zach Ben-Amots.

It’s a nice piece, I think, but I always cringe when I see myself. And it’s worse this time because I’m all shaggy from a lack of a haircut. And, in the second bit, I admitted to being stressed out (I was!), even though I greatly enjoy tending the waterfowl. This was right after we had another duckling death and the hens were fighting. So I’m not going to watch it again.

Oh well, I submit it for your approval. Just ignore the (lack of a) haircut.


Sean Carroll on the shows “Westworld” and “Devs”: free will, simulations, and multiverses

May 10, 2020 • 9:45 am

In the May 4 New York Times, culture reporter Reggie Ugwu interviewed Sean Carroll about the recent television series “Westworld” (HBO) and “Devs” (FX on Hulu). Sean watched both shows and gives his reactions, then discusses the premises of the shows.  Since I’ve seen only two episodes of one show (“Westworld”), and none of the other, I’ll let you read Sean’s take. Instead I’ll concentrate on one of the big topics of the interview as well as a pet interest of mine: free will.

Sean is a “compatibilist”: someone who, while admitting that our behaviors are determined in the sense that that laws of physics “fix the facts”, as Alex Rosenberg claims, including the facts of our behaviors, still avers that we can sensibly speak of “making a choice”. That is, while we could not have “chosen” other than what we did, we can still talk about “making a choice” and even pretend to ourselves that we really did make a “libertarian” choice where, at a given point, we could have made several alternative decisions.

I have no objection to saying that we have “free will” in the sense that we behave as if we did, though what rankles me are two things. First, philosophers dealing with the issue tend to concentrate on the “we really have a free will” part and downplay the determinism part, which to my mind is the part that has real ramifications for human behavior. Second, I think they do this (Dan Dennett has said so explicitly) because they think that if people realize that they don’t have a “free” choice and could not have made other choices, society will fall apart, with all of us, feeling like automatons or puppets, becoming nihilists unable to rise from our beds. That, of course, is false. I’m a “hard determinist” and get out of bed every day, and I realize that my “agency” is illusory even though I feel that it’s real. And if you’re a philosopher who argues for compatibilism in this way, it is condescending, for it tries to buttress most peoples’ feelings that they have libertarian free will. It’s exactly like those cynical theologians who don’t really believe in God, but think that it’s good for people to do so, as it keeps them on the straight and narrow. It’s odd that Dan Dennett, who’s demolished the theological argument as “belief in belief”, does nearly the same thing with free will.

There are a few more issues that compatibilists like to bring up.

Nobody really accepts libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will.  That may be true among non-theological philosophers, but not among the public, with 60-85% of people surveyed in four countries saying that we live in a universe that has libertarian free will. And ask a religionist, one who thinks that one has a free choice to accept Jesus, God, or Allah, if they are really determinists at bottom. With the exceptions of Calvinists and a few other sects, they’ll say “Hell, no!” (Well, they’d probably leave out the “hell.”)

Even if our behaviors are determined, it wouldn’t make a difference to society if we espouse some form of free will. This is palpably untrue. Although some philosophers as well as some readers here say, “there are no consequences of determinism”, I think that’s cant and, indeed, somewhat disingenuous. Our whole legal system has a retributivist bent that comes from punishing people because we think they could have made a better choice than they did. Likewise, poor people are often held responsible for their own circumstances (viz. Reagan’s “welfare queens”), so that people ultimately get what they deserve. This is called the “Just World” view of life.

And if you don’t believe that, look at the Sarkissian et al. study of those four countries: 60-75% of people surveyed thought that if they lived in a deterministic universe and could not have chosen other than they did, then people would not be morally responsible for their actions. This, I believe, is the reason why some philosophers like Dan Dennett, though avowing otherwise (but contradicting himself in other places), espouse compatibilism: if you tell people they have free will, they consider themselves morally responsible for their actions. And, said Dennett, if they don’t, then society will fall apart.

My response to that is that we can have more justifiable and more ethically based systems of reward and punishment if we don’t accept that people could have done other than what they did. They can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished (the latter on the basis of deterring them, sequestering them from the public, or reforming them), but not morally responsible for their actionsFor “moral responsibility”, as with the people surveyed above, implies libertarian free will and can justify retributive punishment. (That said, I don’t object to the use of “moral” to characterize” what comports with human ethics”. But I dislike the term “morally responsible”, which smacks of free choice.

Compatibilists have not settled on a definition of “free will”. To one compatibilist, free will means freedom from obvious coercion. To another, it’s that we have complex processing in our brain that spits out a decision that’s gone through an involved (and evolved) program. To a third, it’s somebody who’s sane enough to understand the consequences of their actions. There are as many definitions of “free will” as there are compatibilist philosophers. So when you say “we have free will”, you better be damn sure that you add exactly what you mean, explain why your compatibilistic “free will” is not only different from others, but is better than others.

Enough. In his interview, Sean not only admits that he’s a determinist (and a compatibilist, which he lays out in his book The Big Picture), but comes surprisingly close to saying that determinism should affect our view of human behavior. I’ll quote a few of his answers (indented) and make a few comments:

First, Sean’s definition of determinism:

A common thread between the two shows is the conflict between free will vs. determinism. Can you explain what determinism is?

Determinism is basically the idea that if you knew everything that was happening in the universe at one moment, then you would know, in principle, everything that was going to happen in the future, and everything that did happen in the past, with perfect accuracy. Pierre-Simone Laplace pointed this out in the 1800s using a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon.

Well, that’s his view of determinism, but I would rather use the world “naturalism”. For, if quantum mechanics be true, there are things that we couldn’t predict even if we had perfect knowledge of the Universe—like when a given radioactive atom will decay. And this means that even if we knew everything happening in the universe at one time, predictions might be inaccurate. I myself have argued that perhaps even evolution is unpredictable with perfect knowledge if mutation involves quantum processes. If that’s the case—and we don’t know—then the fuel for evolutionary change is unpredictable, and hence so is evolution.

Below is Sean’s compatibilism. Most readers here probably agree with it, and I don’t disagree unless one emphasizes the free will part and not the determinism part. All the following emphases in bold are mine, in which Sean makes it clear that we could not have done other than what we did.

Let’s talk about free will. Do we have it?

It’s complicated, and I apologize for that, but it’s worth getting right. The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former. If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.

Good, Dr. Carroll! We obey the laws of physics when we “choose” a shirt to wear.

Did I make the choice to pick up the phone and call you?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: It depends on what you mean by “you” and “make the choice.” At one level, you’re a collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics. No choices are involved there. But at another level, you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices. The two levels are compatible, but speak very different languages. This is the “compatibilist” stance toward free will, which is held by a healthy majority of professional philosophers.

I think this is a bit confusing given that most people think that the words “you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices” means “FREE” choices. Now Sean takes care to make the distinction between determinism and the illusion of free choice, but I couch the distinction in a way very different from Sean, emphasizing the determinism. The rest is semantics, often (not with Sean!) constructed to fool people into behaving morally.

Here Ugwu asks a good question, and Sean answers with the traditional form of compatibilism.

But isn’t that a rhetorical sleight of hand? If our choices are fully predetermined by physical processes outside of our control and beneath our consciousness, are they really choices? Or is that just a story we’re telling ourselves?

I think it’s the same as the chair you’re sitting on. Is it an illusion because it’s really just a bunch of atoms? Or is it really a chair? It’s both. You can talk about it as a set of atoms, but there’s nothing wrong with talking about it as a chair. In fact, you would be dopey to not talk about it as a chair, to insist that the only way to talk about it was as a set of atoms. That’s how nature is. It can be described using multiple different vocabularies at multiple different levels of precision.

At the level of precision where we’re talking about human beings and tables and chairs, you just can’t talk that way without talking about people making choices. There’s just no way to do it. You can hypothesize, “What if I had infinite powers and I knew where all the atoms were and I knew all the laws of physics.” Fine. But that’s not reality. If you’re reality based, then you have to talk about choices.

In his response below, Sean comes about as close as he ever has to saying that there are tangible social effects of accepting determinism (again, the emphasis in the third paragraph is mine).

On both shows, the laws of physics are used to reframe the idea of morality. On “Devs,” Forest makes the argument that determinism is “absolution.” And there’s an idea in “Westworld” that humans are just “passengers”; forces beyond our control are behind the wheel. When you see people on the news, or even when you think about the people in your own life, does your belief in determinism affect the way you judge their behavior?

Not really, no. As long as you’re talking about a human-scale world. This idea that we are just puppets is clearly a mistake. It’s mixing up two different ways of talking about the world. There’s a way of talking about human beings going through their lives and making choices. There’s another way of talking about the laws of physics being deterministic and so forth. Those are two different ways — pick one.

[Carroll] Now, there are situations where we might learn that the choices that we thought people had are more circumscribed than we knew, either because of their biology or because of mental health issues, or what have you. By all means, take that into consideration. But that’s very human-scale stuff. If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way. It’s not a matter of cutting edge science, it’s ancient law.

Well, ancient law isn’t that clear cut! For law, ancient and modern, is largely based on the premise that in some cases people could have acted otherwise. But they couldn’t—not ever! So we shouldn’t hold people responsible as if they could have acted otherwise. And that has enormous ramifications for the legal system. We already have “not guilty by reason of insanity”, but we should have “guilty of doing an act, but punished in light of the knowledge that they couldn’t have acted other than what they did.”  I’ve always thought that the court should determine responsibility, but another agency should determine “punishment”, and in light of determinism.

I wish that Sean would discuss the ramification of that “human-scale stuff”, because that’s what’s important to society. Sean clearly implies that the law under determinism would be different from the law under libertarianism (or perhaps even compatibilism). And in that he does differ from people like Dennett and many of the readers here. I’d love to have a discussion about all this with Sean some day.